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By John Robinson, Madison Children’s Museum Exhibits Developer
(Reprinted from hand to hand, a journal from the Association of Children’s Museums)
In early 2010, as the Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) team toiled away building its expanded new facility, it became clear that quadrupling the exhibit space on a very tight timeline and an even tighter budget was going to be taxing. Soldiering through the worst economy in recent U.S. history, what kept staff energized was that these challenges also produced unusual opportunities that might not have emerged under more favorable circumstances.
One example is an imaginative series of loosely connected exhibits known as The Wayback Machine (with homage to Mr. Peabody’s iconic WABAC machine on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) that features both retro and cutting-edge technologies. For example, an old phone booth (most kids have never seen or even heard of one) demonstrates the creative repurposing of an obsolete artifact resulting in The Philosophone, where young visitors enter, pick up the handset and are asked to ponder an inspired collection of “Questions without Answers for Kids” while surrounded by blacklight psychedelic artwork and a wonderfully bizarre Theremin-fueled soundtrack created by MCM’s director of education (also a musician).
In another Wayback exhibit, visitors can play with an old mechanical pinball machine while cameras broadcast the solenoid wonderland of the machine’s beating heart on a set of old tube TVs mounted above the machine. Rhythm Face uses facial recognition software, an early-generation MIDI Player, a speaker salvaged from an elementary school, and a dentist’s chair to enable visitors to contort their faces to produce a lively and surprising series of sound payoffs while images of their twisted faces are relayed to a large monitor in the building’s lobby.
Much like the city of Madison, the Wayback is a true original loaded with quirky charm and sideways savvy. The old-school objects routinely prompt rich intergenerational exchanges as parents and grandparents talk about the place these technologies had in their own lives growing up. But the most under-appreciated dimension of the Wayback exhibits is that they don’t readily give up all their secrets. You have to work for them. The exhibit bristles with dozens of knobs, levers, switches and dials, some functional, some just theater. Some controls are disguised, such as the pair of faucet handles that control power to two small exhibits.
Interested in seeing how visitors would respond to a complex exhibit with no instructions or prompts, the MCM exhibit team lobbied hard to keep the exhibit sign free. Subtle visual and auditory clues guided the patient observer into understanding the inner workings of the Wayback, but it required observation and trial and error to figure it all out.
The strategy seemed to work fine for most young visitors. Some would simply push all the buttons, try every switch and eventually produce the desired result. Others learned by watching or being told what to do by another kid in an informal act of solidarity. Even the inactive buttons seemed to provide a source of lively play for younger visitors: the pure pleasure of twisting old Bakelite knobs all the way up! Kids helping kids learn! The collective process of working through a problem! An opportunity for families to engage in light-hearted problem solving!